Pros: Tonal balance, low level listening, resolution, low distortion, Bass, godlike midrange
Cons: Need to save up..or rob a bank
I am an unabashed fan of orthodynamic headphones. Have been a dedicated orthohead for over two years now. All thanks to dBel84 for introducing me to some home made SFI driver based headphones at a meet. The Orthodynamic thread soon became a sanctuary and the folks who take part in the thread very close friends. We are dedicated group who share a passion for planar driven headphones and in our ideal world planar headphones would take back their rightful place at the head of the pack in audiophile headphone listening.
I have heard the best that the dynamic and electrostat headphones have to offer in the form of the HD800, T1 (not enough listening time however), PS-1000, Koss ESP950, Stax O2, lambda, SR-404 and they have all fallen short of what orthos can do.
Sonic frontiers TransDAC heavily modded
Assemblage DAC 2.7 heavily modded
Reference headphone - Smeggy built Fostex T50RP woodies aka "Thunderpants"
With my review playlist at the ready I sat down to put the LCD-2 through its paces. I listen to every kind of music in nearly every type of digital format. My playlist reflected this. I wanted to see how the LCD-2 would perform in an everyday situation for me rather than just running through some reference discs. Genres from Indie rock to Southern rock, Country and folk to hardrock and metal, from jazz to pop, with western classical and Indian Classical rounding up the list. Their formats ranged from Mp3s, FLAC to XRCDs and DTS-HD Master Audio recordings were.
When Don informed me that he had the newest Audeze LCD-2 in his possession and invited me over to a listen, I jumped at the opportunity. Being a planar fan through and through I was excited to see what progress Audez'e had made over the promising LCD-1 that I had owned. With Portland's very own M Ward's - Post war at the ready I arrived at his place. As Don brought out the headphones, my jaw dropped at the gorgeous headphones he held in his hand. With the limited time at hand, after ogling at the LCD-2s build quality he set me down with his system with a cup of coffee in hand and left me to run it through its paces. I sat mesmerized for a full 40 minutes listening nearly to the entire album. When I was done all I could remark to Don was, "wow, that is something else". Yes I was a bit at a loss for words unlike today writing this review. I had one of the best vintage orthos tuned by dBel84 and a pair of the Fostex T50RP woody thunderpants. I ran a few tracks again going back and forth between the headphones and came away with the conclusion the LCD-2 was clearly the better headphone. All from within 40 mins of listening to it. I did find a few 'faults' at first with the LCD-2. I commented that I felt the bottom end was a bit flabby and that the high frequencies weren't hot enough to my tastes. But overall the headphones were the first ones that sounded ultra refined with oodles of detail and yet remained musical to me. I thanked Don for the opportunity and reluctantly left.
A couple of days later kwkarth agreed to come over to my place with his review pair of the LCD-2s so I could listen to them on my rig. We spent well over an hour running through some reference material. We also got around to trying the LCD-2 out of a portable amp with an Ipod as a source. The ALO Rx amplifier + Ipod combo did a commendable job here and confirmed to me that the LCD-2s could after all be driven comfortably with a portable amp such as the ALO Rx. This is good news to those who plan on using these headphones on the go as well. The audition was still too hurried to form any compelling impressions and I persuaded Audez'e to let me borrow the LCD-2 from dBel84s for a few days. Much to my delight they agreed.
Soon as I got home, i gingerly brought out the headphones. Like a voluptuous woman pining for some love, the LCD-2 screamed at my hungry eyes for attention, to reach and caress her curves. I admit, I did. The headband foam was nice and soft, the pads were of high quality leather, they had worn in nicely since the first time I tried them on. The mini-XLR jacks is something that all would agree to being made standard on high end headphones. The cable was a far cry from the thick unwieldy one on the LCD-1 and neatly terminated into a Neutral jack. To top it all off, I was ecstatic to see 4 screws in the back which give immediate access to the rear of the driver, the area of most interest for us orthoheads who like to tune and configure orthos to our tastes. The guys at Audez'e had clearly been paying attention to our wish list.
Holding the LCD-2s in your hand, you know its a high end product, the result of quality workmanship and sound engineering.
Does it have 'sachu' bass?
I am notorious to be very picky with the low frequency response on any system I listen to. I personally feel most people are only exposed to a flat monotonic bass note on headphones. Orthos opened my eyes and gave me hope that they can reproduce speaker like texturing in low frequency notes. This drew me back into the headphone scene. Whenever i try a new headphone I am instantly focused on the low frequency reproduction capability.
I like the low frequencies to be extended, tight, accurate in tonal reproduction and most importantly textured. Largely, orthos do a fairly decent job in this area albeit after a fair amount of tuning, but still end up compromising on one of the other areas. Having owned and heard the LCD-1 and sold primarily for its lackluster performance when it came to low frequency response I wasn't prepared to accept the fact that the LCD-2s could come anywhere close to the prowess of my reference TPs.
First thing I tried was an Indian Classical piece From the album, The Valley Recalls - 2. The impact of the Ghatam was everything that I expected it to be. The tablas and Mrudangam were sounding surreal, quick with just the right impact. Some orthos veil the notes from how a Tabla or Mrudangam sound but the LCD-2 was a revelation here. I had to convince myself what I was hearing was right. I quickly switched back to my reference headphones and could make out that the "tok" sound on a tabla was sounding off, more like a "tick" on the Fostex thnderpants. back on the LCD-2 I just closed my eyes and enjoyed the amalgamation of 3 ancient Indian percussion instruments fire away in harmony. As the track reached its crescendo, the tabla master Zhakir Hussain furiously thumping way on the tablas while the mrudangam was trying to keep up the tempo, each and every note blended blissfully. I felt I was back in the First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland where they once performed a year or two ago.
Next I tried some Electronica,Pop the Cherry and Currywurst by Aerodromme. Breakbeat drum and bass and electronica usually don't have ultra low frequency material. What i look for here is impact. On the EHHA, the LCD-2s were head pounding but lacking some definition. Switching to the Stacker 2, the definition got back, more tighter bass but the impact was not as great. I stuck with the Stacker 2 amplifier as for the first time, I was able to rock hard to Electronica and DnB and actually appreciate the details in the recordings which i once thought to be non-existent. One only expects the 4 by 4 beat in a DnB track to stand out , but with the LCD-2 it transforms the experience and gets a rave going in your head.
On M Ward's "Poison Cup" and Patricia Barber's Companion album, I could actually feel the pads vibrating on the ultra low bass notes. The double bass was as real and as tactile as it can get. It was like an onion. You can keep peeling away layer after layer of bass. They one upped my much vaunted thunderpants in the low frequency reproduction in everything except the impact levels. The LCD-2 were just as effortless as the thunderpants throughout. Fabulous!
One further thing that I noticed was that some notes sounded stunning different on the two headphones. I don't quite know how to explain this but the notes just sounded real on the LCD-2. I was stunned and disappointed at the same time. As much as I hate to admit it I felt let down by my reference headphones. I again attribute the LCD-2s prowess in recreating tonally accurate notes to its open design, not to mention what appears to meticulously tweaked driver to extract every little bit of ortho goodness available. For a closed headphone my reference headphones are still the best I've heard. But overall, the LCD-2 frankly walked away with the prize. My reference headphones were no competition to be fully upfront.
The all important midrange.
Midrange is the stronghold of nearly all orthos. No, your dynamic headphone or stat headphone just don't do it like an ortho and that's a fact. The dynamics lack the emotion while stats sound thin to these ears. Perhaps the only stat to come close to otho like sound in the midrange is the Stax O2 MK1. To date the best midrange I have heard on any headphone has been the ultra rare and venerable Yamaha Yh-1000. It gave me the first eargasm ever listening to Margo sing Sweet Jane. It is very hard to describe the emotional involvement that one goes through when one listens to something so superlative, one that hasn't been experienced before and try to put words to describe the feeling. Its just something you have to hear for yourself. But then the YH1K is so rare a headphone that only a handful have had the privilege. I like my vocals just a bit upfront so I raised my eyebrow when i saw the freq curve on the LCD-2 prior to listening to it thinking, hmm that doesn't look good for the midrange. That 6-10dB drop from 1kHz onwards is significant i felt.
Those first 40 mins laid any apprehensions I had to rest. Now M Ward is a handsome albeit short man with a voice that makes girls swoon. Listening to him sing "Rollercoaster" left me swaying too and thinking I could kiss the man, he is after all singing right in front of me. It felt so real, you could hear each and every breath he took between verses, the backup vocals were something I had never heard on my reference headphones in the "Eyes on the Prize" track, at least not as clearly. I could pick out 3 distinct voices in the background. I was dumbstruck. I knew then, this was it. We finally had a pair of headphones that could go toe to toe with the Yh-1000 and then some. The difference between the two is the ultra low distortion levels. Both have the same emotion and awestruck feeling that they leave in their wake. But, the LCD-2 goes one step further giving you the blackest of black backgrounds.
The track 'Good Ole Boys like me' By Don Williams brought me to tears. His silky smooth yet rough in a complex way reminded me why he was my favorite Country artist. To round up the male vocals test, i played Iron Maiden - Run to the Hills and Pantera's Cowboys from hell. Till date I never knew one could actually discern details in genres such as metal, that one could connect with the normally screeching vocals on an emotional level. With the LCD-2 it wasn't just mindless headbanging, but it was headbanging with emotion.
For female vocals i rifled through Loreena Mckennit - A Phrygian Moon and Mummer's dance first. The lovely Canadian's voice sailed through the blob sitting between my ears. The tonal accuracy is nothing like I have heard. I rang up Rachel Yamagata's "I'll find a way" to hear her Sweet nasal voice sending shivers down my spine just as it did once in a demo room at RMAF. I felt I was back at the Crystal Ballroom a year ago when I saw her perform live (even with a slight case of the flu, the poor dear). The LCD-2 was resolving enough to show some distortion in the music however which I was surprised by. As I had listened to this track so many times in so many high end systems that while it was barely noticeable on them, it immodestly stood out on the LCD-2. Margo is a favorite of mine and naturally any female vocals test I do involves Sweet Jane and Blue Moon Revisited. I felt like I could just die and go to heaven listening to her on the LCD-2. I was on such a high listening to the LCD-2 that i played Lisa Gerrad's 'Elysium' track on the Gladiator OST. One of the most moving pieces of cinema scores ever created and the LCD-2 didn't disappoint as it moved me to my core. To round up the female Vocals test the Companion album by Patricia Barber (XRCD) was played a full 4 times from end to end. Every time revealing more and more details in the midrange. Putting it simply, the midrange on the LCD-2 is godlike.
Man it feels good to get high..
As noted in the initial impressions, i felt the energy in the highs were a tad lacking. However, as I got to spend more and more time with the LCD-2, it was apparent that they in fact extended just as well as the best headphones without adding coloration, being absolutely neutral in reproducing source material as it should be. I did miss the leading edge on tracks like the 'Librarian' or on any of the metal tracks. The strength however lies in the LCD-2s resolving power. I thought my reference headphones were the best resolving orthodynamic headphones I had heard. Boy was I wrong. The LCD-2 made mince meat of them in this regard. For instance, you could hear every creak in "I'll find a way", the cymbals were lifelike. On M ward's 'Chinese translation', his power with an acoustic guitar was there in its fully glory, each string being plucked, his fingers sliding up and down the strings, On Don Williams track too, one could hear the guitar plucks being as close to lifelike as it can get. On My Morning Jacket's " Touch me I am going to scream. Part2" there are at various points where the keyboards come in and while the Fostex thunderpants clouded the consecutive notes, the LCD-2 picked them apart beautifully.
Special mention for the Indian classical track. Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia on the bamboo flute and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma on the ancient instrument the Santoor (hammered Dulcimer), two living legends coming together to create some of the best pieces of music ever played. Each strike on the santoor and its harmonics were reproduced seamlessly. There is this section of the track where Shiv kumar sharma ramps up the tempo on the Santoor (each strike being as precise and fast as a pinprick) and so does Hariprasad Chaurasia on the flute (increasing the pitch as well) blending the two instruments into something only the Gods could have scripted. The urgency in the tempo one feels yet calmness reverberated by the tonal qualities of the instruments strike a balance that i had never experienced before listening to this track.
This is an area that most vintage orthos are severely handicapped at. I personally am not a soundstage freak. I don't want an area spanning a football field between my ears but enough to give breathing space for all the elements in an orchestra to come through without glazing over is fine. Even this modest task is mucked up by most vintage orthos. The other thing that most headphones and not just orthos suffer from is a fractured soundstaging, its not a seamless transition from left to middle to right.
The only headphone I have heard do this superlatively has been the HD800 and it maintains this advantage over the LCD-2. However the upside on the LCD-2 is that there is actually enough of a soundstage. For example listening to The Battle - Gladiator OST you feel like you are actually there, the opening scene flashes before your eyes, you are there on the battle field, charging at them barbarians yelling "Roma Victor!". Listening to Rachael Yamagata singing "I'll find a way" I was transported back in time just as mesmerized to the Reimyo room at RMAF with the lights dimmed down. That feeling of immersion in the music was something I had never experienced with an orthodynamic headphone before. The open nature coupled with the transducer design is to be credited for this.
Imaging to me is more important than soundstage. My reference headphones have a problem with imaging well cause of their closed nature. It falls short with complex music where instruments lose their focus and get mixed up. The one headphone that did this better than anything else was the Stax Omega 2 or O2 MK1. The O2 is superlative in this field. I was overjoyed when I could pick out each and every instrument in the Listen Up! DTS master audio recording. This is one of the hallmarks of these headphones and so easily noticeable that I made a comment to the effect to Don about it when I heard it the first time. When Omar Hakim(on drums) goes off on a solo in the dts recording I was spellbound listening to each instrument, the hi-hat, the cymbals, snare, tom toms and the kick drum all in their rightful spaces with room to breathe.
Switching to Loreena Mckennit's "Highway man", the complex jamboree of instruments in the mix filter through the music that made me aware of what instrument was playing where in the scene and importantly how it sounded. My reference headphones just utterly made a hash of it here. I was hearing details in the background that I had never heard before, such as the backup vocals on M ward's "Post war" track.
Conclusion: The LCD-2 was right up there alongside the O2 in imaging.
Low level listening.
The LCD-2 is probably the best headphone I have had the pleasure of using for low level listening. Just for this reason alone I want to buy these headphones. Most headphones if not all that I have heard need to me to up the volume control knob to get full dynamic range reproduction. Not the case with the LCD-2 which translates to safer listening.
The LCD-2s retrieval ability at low listening levels is by far the greatest thing for me. How many times have you had to turn the volume down so your wife or gf wouldn't beat you in the head with your headphones cause you were disturbing her? For me its come close to being atleast once. It is frustrating listening to music at low levels simply because all, yes all headphones that I have listened to simply cannot sustain a full dynamic range at low levels. Some need to be turned up to hear and low frequencies notes at all, others make Margo of Cowboy Junkies sound like those American Idol wannabes.
But in comes the LCD-2, it makes it all seem so effortless at low volumes. There is all the low frequency extension, the shimmer in the highs and maintains that seductive midrange. I was sold on them after they kept me awake till 5 in the morning for two nights in a row of low level listening. This means my ears get to enjoy music without damaging for a very long time..maybe even till I am 40-50 years old. ;)
Nothing even comes close to it in this department.
What does this all mean to you and to me?
Staying true to the one and only rule of the audiophile world I will say trust your own ears. But if you don't know what you are hearing, then yeah just take my word for it. :)
The boys at Audez'e have come a long way since the LCD-1 that they released at last year's Canjam. To think a company's first real headphone product can sound as good as it does, look and feel good as good as it does just blows me away. These guys have undoubtedly put a lot of pain and effort, while all the time listening to the community for feedback and suggestions in bringing out the best they could offer. In my eyes and to these ears, they have surpassed every expectation by light years.
To me, the LCD-2 is the culmination of the end of a 3 decade drought for a true high end planar headphone that is well designed, well thought out, that can hang with the big guns of the stat world and then some. But, most importantly, it is one that has been tuned to perfection just like the only other ortho in my mind, the venerable Wharfedale Isodynamic that performs at its best from the get go. The Wharfedale was a revolutionary product in design and conception, the Audez'e is a fitting tribute to the pro-genesis of othodynamic headphones and is well poised to herald a resurrection of a once forgotten technology.
While my reference headphones are brilliant sounding albeit being closed ones the LCD-2 comes along and says ..hang on there son..this is how you do it.
The LCD-2 has managed to show me that the rabbit hole indeed goes deeper. When I was feeling secure that my bleeding wallet had been patched up for good by my reference headphones, that I had reached a plateau with regards to how good a transducer can sound, that "this is it. It can get no better", the LCD-2 like an erupting volcano raised the bar into the stratosphere and in process made my wallet shrivel back in fear. I quickly realized that the asking price on these headphones was a pittance compared to the pure audio nirvana I was experiencing. Its a bit like watching Top gear with Jeremy Clarkson yelling "Power!!" while power sliding an angry yet sophisticated Ferrari V12 for the entire show. It brings forth the same fun, finesse and importantly, the soul and passion that the creator put into making these headphones. It makes you feel special. It makes you feel you are at one with the music, an extension of the audience Patricia Barber was singing to. The power of speed, detail, vividness in the low frequencies, the midrange seductiveness, its ability to ensconce you in the event that knocks on your eardrums and then make it all seem par for the course. Truly staggering.
I found myself scrambling through my music collection as the time to return them was at hand. As Jim James emotionally sang the last verses of track 8 on Evil Urges serenading his lady, the librarian, I found myself joining in, serenading the delightful little creature called the LCD-2, promising her that we'll be reunited soon.
"Simple Little Beauty, Heaven in your breath
Simplest of pleasures, the World at it's best"